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A Tour of Napa Valley

Martha Stewart Living, August 2008

If there's a more famous winemaking area in the world than California's Napa Valley, then we'd love to know about it. Only France's Champagne region seems comparable. For more than 30 years, most (and possibly all) of North America's best Cabernet Sauvignons have originated here, and Napa Valley Cabernets have been at the forefront of a modern style of winemaking that is especially bold and big, in terms of flavor, alcohol, and price.

A $50 bottle of a Napa Cabernet these days is at the cheaper end of the scale; at the famed Auction Napa Valley benefit, held each June, the top bottles sell for tens of thousands.

But for all of Napa's clout and glamour, when you visit the Valley, just an hour northeast of San Francisco, it's refreshing to discover that at heart it remains a down-to-earth agricultural community, with country roads, tractors kicking up dust, more than a few chickens and farm dogs in evidence, and some excellent diners and produce markets, if you know where to look.

One of our first stops in the region is always La Luna Market and Taqueria, a farm store and takeout counter in Rutherford, smack in the middle of the 30-mile-long valley, to pick up inexpensive straw cowboy hats to ward off the intense daytime sun (packing sweaters is advisable for the evenings, when the temperature rapidly cools). The burritos at La Luna are terrific, stuffed with fresh cilantro and onion. Just down the road, Frog's Leap, a super-friendly, homespun operation, offers its Gamay-based rose, which can be difficult to find outside the Golden State. The pairing of the wine and the spicy burritos is as delicious a California picnic as you could compose.

Our favorite way to experience wine in Napa Valley is to bypass the most famous, big-name wineries, where there's a strong chance of encountering busloads of visitors and long delays, in favor of smaller vineyards, especially those on the hillsides.

This is where you're likely to sample some genuine Northern California hospitality, as well as a more diverse selection of grapes, including Barbera and Riesling, that buck Napa Valley's Cabernet-Chardonnay dominance. Telephoning a few days ahead to book an appointment (often necessary at small vineyards) takes more forethought, but the rewards are potentially huge.

Occasionally the winemaker leads the tour of the property and pours you a taste herself. Some wineries charge a modest amount for tours and tastings, but whether they do or not, it's a common courtesy to purchase a bottle or two of your favorites before you depart.

Another benefit of visiting the mountainside wineries is that the proprietors -- absent the financial pressure of owning uberexpensive real estate on the valley floor -- tend to experiment with more than grapes. Beef, olive oil, and vodka are a few of the homegrown products being offered alongside wines in these appellations. Hillside wineries are also given to storing their wine in picturesque caves, a highlight of many tours.

Only a couple of two-lane thoroughfares, Route 29 and the Silverado Trail, run the length of the valley floor, where the Napa River once left rich deposits of soils now ideally suited for agriculture. The routes connect almost all of the prime Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay appellations of Napa Valley, including (from south to north) Carneros, Oak Knoll, Stags Leap, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, Saint Helena, and Calistoga.

The distinctive soils and rare climate of the valley, with intense sun by day and cool Pacific breezes moving in at night, are just right for nourishing and preserving big, ripe wines -- especially those rich, inky Cabernets and thick, golden Chardonnays.

The city of Napa, at the bottom end of the valley, and the towns of Saint Helena and Calistoga, at the slightly sleepier northern end of the valley, are the most promising for finding a farmers' market in full flower (Saint Helena's Friday market is one of the best in the area).

And the pleasures of a trip aren't purely gustatory: Calistoga is famous for the mud-bath resorts that dot its main street, Lincoln Avenue, which is also among the surest places in the county to find a game of pool and a cold beer.

As befits a region with such high-and-low appeal, lodging in the valley ranges from as little as $100 a night in the off-season (at Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort, offering mud baths, in Calistoga, or at El Bonita Motel, our favorite, in Saint Helena) to well more than $1,000 a night at some of the luxury resorts, such as Meadowood or Calistoga Ranch.

No matter where your tastes lie, though, you're likely to come away with a favorable impression of Napa Valley. Despite its stratospheric success, this star of the winemaking world seems to have its roots planted firmly in the ground.

Text by Matt Lee and Ted Lee